Thursday, 3 July 2008
Seanad Eireann Debate
Senator Frances Fitzgerald: I thank the Cathaoirleach for the opportunity to raise this issue that is important at a national level and at a local level to the people of Rathcoole. I am delighted to raise the Government’s waste management policy, its policy on incineration, the role it sees for incineration in waste management in Ireland and the number and capacity of incinerators the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government considers are required in Ireland. This is especially important in view of the fact that the Meath incinerator is going ahead. There is also a proposal for an incinerator in Rathcoole.
On 6 May I attended a meeting hosted by the Rathcoole community council at which grave concern was expressed at plans to locate this incinerator and the impact it would have in Rathcoole, Clondalkin, Newcastle, Saggart and Lucan. Many legitimate questions must be answered by the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government. Why did he meet with developers of this private incinerator in July 2007? Why did his colleague, the other Green Party Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, meet with the developers? Why was the Department of Defence consulted by the proposers? When it was consulted it stated it had no objection to the incinerator. What is going on with these Departments? Why were three Departments willing to meet with the proposers of a private incinerator if this is not Government policy?
Since the Minister came into office we have had a cloud of confusion over Government waste management policy and what role, if any, the Government sees for incineration in this policy. Initially, the Minister stated no more than two incinerators would be required. The then Taoiseach stated we would need four. What is the actual number? What capacity does the Government seek from incineration? Has the Minister, Deputy Gormley, changed his views? He was a strong opponent. He sought a mandate from his constituents on his opposition to an incinerator. Now, he is happy to meet with the developers of a proposed private incinerator.
The question of what is considered essential infrastructure must be answered by the Government. Legislation on strategic infrastructure was introduced, under which certain applications have planning exemptions. If waste incineration is not a priority for the Government why did this go directly to An Bord Pleanála, by-passing the local authority and why was it fast-tracked in a matter of weeks? This raises legitimate questions on the Government’s policy in this area. The constituents and communities in Rathcoole, Newcastle and Saggart, who will be heavily impacted by the proposed incinerator if it goes ahead, deserve to know the answers.
If the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government is meant to have a hands-off approach to essential infrastructure and the planning process, why did he meet developers at the same time the project was given exempted status as strategic infrastructure? A conflict of interest exists. I hope the Minister of State, in the absence of the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, will be able to answer some of the questions I raised.
It is time for the Minister to remove the confusion and state clearly and categorically his position on incineration and whether the Government supports the location of incinerators in Rathcoole, Meath, Poolbeg and throughout the country. If the Government does not support this, what is its policy and what will it do to stop it? I thank the Cathaoirleach for providing me with the opportunity to raise this important matter.
Minister of State at the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment (Deputy Seán Haughey): I am happy to have the opportunity to deal with this matter on behalf of my colleague, the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy John Gormley, who is unavoidably absent as he is attending a meeting of EU environment ministers. Many of the questions raised by the Senator will have to be answered by the Minister directly as they are outside the scope of the matter under discussion. I shall take the opportunity to set out the progress already being made in delivery of the many commitments on waste management in the Government’s policy programme.
Incineration is not the cornerstone of Irish waste management policy. The programme for Government commits us to exploring the full range of technologies available to us, and in particular the potential of technologies for the mechanical and biological treatment of waste. The State has no direct role in determining the number, type or capacity of incinerators which may be developed. These are matters for the commercial sector or local authorities, who may act by way of public private partnership. In either case any such projects must secure planning permission and a waste licence through statutory processes which are independent of the Minister and the Government.
We need to see a step change in our approach to waste management if we are to rid ourselves of unsustainable practices and meet our national and EU ambitions and targets. In particular, the Government is acutely conscious of the real and imminent challenge posed for Ireland by the EU landfill directive. If we are to meet our obligations under this directive and avoid the threat of legal proceedings before the European Court of Justice we must double the amount of biodegradable waste we divert away from landfill by 2010.
The scale of the challenge this presents was well-illustrated in the EPA’s most recent national waste report for 2006. This shows that while quantities of waste recycled increased so too did the quantity of waste sent to landfill. The report demonstrates that good progress is being made in recovering and recycling packaging, in biodegradable waste, and in household and commercial waste. However, this is being offset by the increase in the volume of waste we are generating.
While the rapid economic growth of recent years, with the accompanying increase in the overall population and number of households, is the driver of this increase, it is not one that cannot be maintained. Sustainable development is fundamentally about decoupling our increasing prosperity from the environmental impacts which can be a consequence of it. Development and proper waste management are not mutually exclusive.
We now need to chart a new way forward. It is for this reason the programme for Government identified the need for a fundamental review of our approach to waste management. The Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy Gormley, has initiated this and consultants have been engaged to conduct a study which will underpin this review. We need to accelerate the move away from landfill quite dramatically, we need to step up prevention and minimisation and to regulate the sector in a manner which supports optimal environmental performance at minimum cost. However, we should be under no illusions. Good environmental performance comes at a price. We lead Europe in our application of the polluter pays principle through our system of use-based charging and the funding of most of our infrastructure in this way.
We must ensure that the costs of using this infrastructure reflect the environmental burden imposed. For this reason, the Minister recently increased the landfill levy by the €5 per tonne maximum currently permitted in law and is developing proposals for a much more ambitious approach to using levies to minimise our reliance on landfill and incineration and to promote the viability of alternative technologies. This is being done at a time when the fall in landfill gate fees runs counter to the need to rapidly reduce our reliance on this outmoded technology and avoid the sanctions which will result if we do not meet our landfill directive obligations.
An ambitious programme to achieve the diversion of waste from landfill required by the directive is set out in the national strategy on biodegradable waste. The programme for Government commits to implementing it. This will involve diversion of up to 1.4 million tonnes of waste from landfill by 2010; 1.7 million tonnes by 2013; and an estimated 1.8 million tonnes by 2016.
Putting this in context, of the 2.3 million tonnes of biodegradable waste generated in 2006 only 867,000 tonnes were recovered. We are committed to ensuring the implementation of the national strategy, through segregated collection of biodegradable waste and the generation of compost and through the introduction of mechanical and biological treatment facilities as one of a range of technologies.
The review will not just be about technology. Its terms of reference are deliberately broad in order to promote a fundamental review of the legal, institutional and financial approach we take to waste management. If the review indicates the need for significant legislative changes then the necessary proposals will be brought to Government. Inaction is not an option and the approach reflected in the current crop of waste management plans, while facilitating some progress, is simply not going far enough fast enough.
We need to move from being reactive to proactive, from accepting received wisdom in regard to waste management to seeking the most innovative solutions available internationally. We can move from being an underachiever to world-class standard which will see us not struggle to meet EU targets, as is the case with landfill diversion, but to a position of leadership. It is for this reason the programme for Government sets the very ambitious long-term goal of reducing to 10% our reliance on landfill.
There have been rapid changes in the waste management sector in the past decade due to the increased involvement of a developing and consolidating private sector, the changing role of local authorities as service providers and competitors within the industry, and the movement towards full cost recovery for waste services that has led to increased charges for the consumer. While the sector is fully and properly regulated from an environmental perspective, no similarly comprehensive system of socio-economic regulation has yet been put in place.
While there is general agreement that the existing regulatory framework needs modernisation, there is no consensus on what form this should take, such as whether a waste regulator is required or whether it would be sufficient to change the regulatory framework to provide for a form of public service obligation and to ensure that waste can be directed appropriately.
A key overarching issue that has emerged is the dual role of local authorities as competitors and regulators in the same market and the perceived conflict of interest arising from this. The identification of the changes necessary will be greatly assisted by the recent OECD review of the public service which included a specific case study on waste management and which will be implemented in the context of the overall review of national waste management policy provided for in the programme for Government to which I referred. I reiterate the Government’s commitment, which is shared by the Members, to ensure we rapidly move towards a world class waste management system.
Senator Frances Fitzgerald: I am disappointed the reply did not address the issue of incineration. The Minister of State said waste management policy is under review. On what date will the review be completed? Cosy meetings are being held with developers who want to build incinerators, especially in Rathcoole. What is the Government’s policy on incineration while waste management policy is being reviewed and prepared? A planning application for an incinerator was made under the Planning and Development (Strategic Infrastructure) Act. It has been exempted from the normal planning process and it has been submitted directly to An Bord Pleanála, which is my concern.
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